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Young Job-Seekers Learn Top Tips for Getting the Most Out of Career Fairs
It's been weeks since you went to that career fair and you still haven't had any follow up interviews. Worse, you have a tower of business cards—some from cutting-edge companies with attractive job openings—but no leads.
What went wrong?
To help scientists land competitive jobs in academia, industry, and government, AAAS/Science Careers and Rockville Economic Development, Inc. (REDI), invited 50 early career scientists—mostly graduate students and postdoctoral fellows—to a morning workshop on how to navigate a career fair.
Held 25 September at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., the workshop featured sessions on how to craft a killer résumé or curriculum vitae; identify potential employers and leave a lasting impression; concisely describe your experience and professional interests; secure employment for foreign post-doctoral fellows; and network at scientific meetings.
REDI Executive Director Sally Sternbach said that career fairs provide a wide-angle perspective of different companies or government agencies, offering job seekers—or those just curious about other opportunities—unmatched exposure to potential employers.
"Finding a job is a numbers game and the more contacts you make, the more likely you are to find a job," said Sternbach. "Career fairs basically give you an easy way to improve your numbers and therefore the likelihood of finding that special opportunity."
While some career fairs are held in small rooms with limited attendance and plenty of opportunities for applicants to make a lasting impression with employers, Sternbach said that many are held in convention centers attracting hundreds of people. In all cases, but especially for career fairs with a lot of other job seekers, "in order to stand out you must come prepared."
Lori Conlan, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Services at the National Institutes of Health, said that some career fair attendees arrive ill-prepared and have inaccurate expectations, making career fairs an inefficient use of their time.
Conlan said that among the most common mistakes applicants make is not preparing an "elevator speech," or not being able to concisely describe why they are interested in working for a company, including how their employment history and research interests are aligned with the organization's mission.
"Job seekers need to understand that you will not have a ton of time to explain what you do and that employers certainly will not offer you a job on the spot," said Conlan, adding that representatives will frequently take your résumé and send it out to different departments within their company.
Beyond knowing what to say, Conlan urged the participants to use traditional business etiquette: Dress professionally. Shake hands and make eye contact. Bring your résumé and business card.
Conlan said that the most critical, and perhaps most overlooked, step for a career fair participant is to follow up with an email, written note, or telephone call thanking the company for their time and reminding them of the topics covered in the conversation.
Finally, Conlan encouraged job seekers to develop a network of their friends, family, classmates, alumni, coworkers, or anyone else applicants interact with who can help with a job-search.
Citing colleague Kevin Foley, director of in vivo pharmacology at Synta Pharmaceuticals and frequent Science Careers contributor, Conlan said that a "mediocre résumé and excellent networking will get you a job while a great résumé and poor networking is like playing the lotto
The workshop was organized by Brianna Blaser, outreach project director for AAAS/Science Careers, as part of her program's mission to provide scientists at every level of experience and across the full range of disciplines with the training and resources needed to achieve professional advancement. Science Careers offers its resources for free.
Blaser joined AAAS in July after completing her Ph.D. in women's studies at the University of Washington, where she studied the scientific workforce. She said that career fairs are often difficult because they are an "artificial situation in which most people feel uncomfortable."
"No one wants to feel like they're asking for a job after talking fast for two minutes, all the while being unclear exactly what to talk about," said Blaser.
Nonetheless, Blaser said that career fairs are a tremendous "resource and tool that can yield information about a company as well as a contact within that company."
Blaser suggested that applicants should practice responses to common questions before the career fair and be sure to come with plenty of copies of their résumé. A résumé or curriculum vitae is important not only because it communicates why the applicant is a good fit for the company, but also because it serves as a reference point for the company after the interview.
Mark Presnell and Derek Haseltine
In a joint presentation, Mark Presnell, director of the career center at Johns Hopkins University, and Derek Haseltine, assistant director of the professional development office at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, said that due to the limited amount of time that companies take to evaluate a résumé, it is important that applicants use key terms about skills, experiences, and why they are applying.
"[Employers] will take about 15 to 30 seconds to look at your résumé," said Presnell, "and if they don't like your first page, [they] probably won't look at your second page."
Presnell and Haseltine added that applicants should always target their résumé or curriculum vitae to the specific company and job description, demonstrating that their skill sets fit within the job's requirements.
Haseltine said that a well-written résumé or curriculum vitae "hooks the employer, making them want to read more about you by showing that you did your homework and understand what that employer really values."
Many of the workshop participants will be attending S.T.E.M. Talent 2008: A Symposium and Career Fair for Postdocs in the Capital Region. That free, full-day conference and career fair will bring together current postdoctoral fellows working in Washington, D.C.-area with employers from around the country.
Other job fairs and outreach events in the United States and Europe can be found on the Science Careers tools and tips page.
15 October 2008